Burying the Island ghosts

Hugh Lewin, who spent seven years in the Sixties as a political prisoner in Pretoria, joined last weekend’s gathering of some 1 200 ex-political prisoners for a reunion on Robben Island

IT IS a weekend of rituals. The ritual of resurrecting the ghosts, re-uniting them, dancing with them from lime quarry to cell-block, and (perhaps finally) burying them.

We are again guests of the state, but now we’re on SAS Outeniqua, accompanied by a flotilla of rescue boats and guarded by men in white uniforms who salute and serve coffee, and who, as we near the Island, shepherd on to army helicopters the infirm and the old, all former enemies of the state.

On the island, Kathy Kathrada stands in the cavern of the limestone quarry. “When we first came here,” he says, “they said it would be for six months.
In the end, we worked here, with blisters and blood on our hands, for 12 or 13 years.”

The ritual of measuring time: six months, 12 years, passed off with a shrug. Here you meet the friend you last saw 31 years ago (15 years inside and 16 out, far away out) and it’s like it was yesterday, with a hug and a laugh and a handshake. Hello, my brother. Time is meaningless, though you wonder whether you too look quite as weather-beaten.

But time is tangible too, fixed to each name, the delineation of your badge of honour: the old man did 27 years, the lifers a bit less, give or take a year or so, and Billy did 20, Dave 20, Chiba 18, Eddie 15, Mac 12—only 12—slipping easily off the tongue. These are years, not months.

Thandi Modise (a woman and therefore, like us whites in Pretoria, never on the Island) puts it well: “Inside,” she says, “we spent our youth. We dreamt away our careers.”

Dreams resonate on the island, specially the final dream, which has come true. It is like walking through a history book. They’re all here, rubbing shoulders and shaking hands, with a special place reserved only for the most famous Islander of all, resplendent and hardly stooping in his light blue designer shirt.

“We called him by his real name, Dalibhunga,” says one of his cell-mates, as we make our way down the B- section corridor, less than 50 paces long—and we wait calmly, biding our time once again, while the shoving hacks force their cameras through the grille into the now-famous cell, the length of a bed and only two beds wide.

They’re all here, jammed together in an egalitarian levelling of the cell-block: senators, MPs by the score, premiers in T-shirts (one—Tokyo, 13 years—in a green jumpsuit), ministers of state, judges. And the rest in their hundreds, with so many old men among them, venerable and unphased, some on crutches and walking sticks.

“How did we survive?” asks Kathy, but that’s rhetorical.

An old man clasps the battered hand of a comrade he last saw a generation ago. “Was it them?” he asks, rubbing the flattened fingers. “No,” says the other, “a car accident.” Ah, fine then.

At a formal lunch, the bandiete entertain foreign dignitaries and captains of industry, whose meal- tickets helped fund the day. Then we march, unattended now, to B-Section—and the doors won’t open. “Dankie HEK!” shout the former inmates, mocking the cries of their former jailers. Still the doors stay shut.

“Once we couldn’t get out; now we can’t get in,” says a cluster of in-and-outmates, when along comes Sydney (minister of justice) who is scoffed at for not getting the gates open either. Only when Madiba reappears is there an explanation: we should go first to the quarry and not disturb the prisoners inside (still 700 of them, it seems) having their lunch. Ah, yes, don’t disturb the prisoners.

So off we trudge, Madiba’s black Merc dutifully following the bandiete to the quarry, where he hammers his mark into a memorial slab of limestone; and the rest follow, singing.

Next day, at a conference to discuss the future of the Island and address the plight of many former inmates, the minister of land (Derek, two years) announces: “I’ve investigated the law and Robben Island is state land, so I’m in charge—and, as you were all forcibly removed from it, I declare that this land is yours.”

Jacques Moreillon, once delegate of the International Red Cross and, for many of us for many years, our protection against possible aggro, stares around the gathering. “I can’t believe it,” he says, “it’s unprecedented.”

He’s right, of course: there is no precedent for this. Maybe one, but then the Israelites never returned to re-visit the place of their enslavement. We have crossed the water and liberated the Island.

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